Thinking of Martin Luther King: Create True Community

Posted by: heather

The second in a series of musings about what Dr. King has to say to us in this moment--Create True Community.

Those of us working for social justice have sought to ensure the political table includes those parts of our national and international community previously excluded because of race, class, gender, religion, sexual identity, age, and other differences used to otherize. Rather than interpret the election as a rebuke of our work, I hear a call for true and inclusive community, including those who see us as a threat. We cannot afford to “win” at “their” expense. Or to believe that our winning is without consequences if we do not attend to their winning too.

A white supremacist, US dominant narrative resounds in the “take our country back” or “make America great again.” Any claim by subordinated others to full citizenship rights including jobs, education, housing, safety, political representation seems to be experienced as a zero-sum game in which those rights come at the expense of others. Such an Us versus Them perspective is inherently unstable. Silencing or vanquishing the other is short-term victory that leads to long-term loss, as the defeated plot revenge. In organizations, as in political life, if we seek our victories at the expense of our adversaries, we miss our interconnectedness and the opportunity to create durable solutions to vexing challenges.

True community means including parts we don’t always like or agree with in an effort to create a greater we. Insistence on total alignment means we keep an easy peace within our spheres but miss the input and information from those with a different view.

Each of us has aspects of ourselves we don’t like and try to change or deny. Yet we rob ourselves of the power and intelligence of those excluded parts of ourselves. For example, if I never admit to weakness, then my attempt to always be strong can mean fatigue, illness, physical injury, isolation, and more. If I allow my disliked weakness its place, then I learn to slow down when necessary or to ask for needed help. For each person, the disowned or disliked parts have much more power than if they were acknowledged and accepted for the wisdom they offer. By engaging those parts of our selves we’d like to exile, we become more flexible and healthy.

Similarly, within organizations, there are likely some group members who are “in”—likeable, easy to work with, and so on. There are others who are in some ways “out”—they just don’t fit, they rub people the wrong way. Rather than engage the misfits, I watch leaders, managers, group members try to ice them out, from not greeting them to orchestrating their exit, as they believe they are better off for having evicted the other.

The effort spent to better understand the perspective and needs of the other can lead to greater creativity, and more desirable solutions that meet everyone’s needs. Solutions to political challenges are no different.

As Dr. King noted in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Such interconnectedness and inclusion can be hard to live. It takes true listening, dialogue, openness to and appreciation of difference. We may not always agree but we can always be in relationship and thereby develop more complete solutions. The power of true community is amazing—uplift, mutual support, creativity, care, and so much more. As Rumi wrote:

You and I
have to live
as if you and I
Never heard
Of a you,
and an I.  

·         Where might you expand your own community? Is there a neighbor, family member, organizational colleague, community leader, politician who you have previously excluded or ignored?

·         How might you engage more effectively? See previous posts on curiosity and listening, for example.

·         Identify the elements of successful communities you are already in. What lessons might you apply to new opportunities?